Gaza, Yemen, Syria, Human Rights, and Oil: The Elephants in the COP28 Room
UAE's hosting of COP28 signals a shift in climate meetings to the Global South, but concerns arise due to its major role in the oil industry and involvement in contentious issues. Questions persist about its commitment to climate goals amid geopolitical complexities.
This piece was originally published in New Security Beat, the blog of the Environmental Change and Securiy Program.
The annual multilateral Conference of the Parties (COP) has become one of the most important meetings on the global agenda. So the fact that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will host COP28 starting this week in Dubai—on the coattails of another Arab country, Egypt, hosting COP27 in 2022—is a big deal. Bringing such important international meetings to the Global South is a step forward in decentering and reorienting global climate action.
Yet other questions of orientation also attend the UAE’s taking center stage at this year’s climate summit. The UAE is the world’s seventh-largest oil exporter, and COP28 president Dr. Sultan al-Jaber also heads the country’s main state oil company. Indeed, under his leadership, negotiations of oil contracts will be a significant part of this year’s conference. Political dissidents in the UAE continue to be jailed for their opinions. And the UAE is a major actor in the war in Yemen, which has created one of the world’s most dire humanitarian crises.
There are larger regional developments to navigate as well. This year’s meeting in Dubai is taking place in the context of the devastating bombardments carried out in Gaza by Israel, notably the UAE’s main partner in the Abraham Accords. In the last month, the war’s toll on civilians in Gaza has been tragically high, with nearly 15,000 killed—and more than 6,000 of them children. Settler violence, often sanctioned by Israeli officials, also continues to surge, targeting Palestinian civilians in the occupied West Bank. The UAE has also extended an invitation to attend COP28 to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, who is accused of committing war crimes against his population.
Thus, the shadows of war, violence, and human rights violations will have an impact on the conference. Is there room to make progress on the climate over the next few weeks in this context?
From COP27 to COP28
The COP27 held in Egypt in 2022 ended with a few missed opportunities—and one breakthrough. Discussions about agrifood systems, which emit about one-third of all greenhouse gases, were on the agenda for the first time at COP27 .Yet despite this new focus, countries failed to adopt a systems-based approach that would have tackled the structural imbalances resulting from rising food prices. Instead, they opted for a supply-based approach.
While the topics of food security and agriculture will also be part of the COP28 agenda, the main notable achievement of COP27 was the creation of a Loss and Damage Fund to support the vulnerable countries most impacted by the changing climate. (Most of these countries are in the Global South.)
On paper, the goals and key priorities adopted for COP28 are promising. In the president’s Letter to Parties, Dr. al-Jaber outlined several key goals for this year’s conference, including the conclusion of the Global Stocktake—a comprehensive global assessment of countries’ progress in reaching climate goals called for by the Paris Agreement. This oversight process will be the first-ever completed at a COP. A synthesis report released in September highlighted how far off the parties are from limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Priority will also be placed on key issues such as financing the Loss and Damage Fund at this year’s COP28—including the amount and the sources of funding. The conference president’s statements have reiterated commitments on food and agriculture and also highlighted the importance of examining health in the context of the changing climate. Lessons learned from indigenous communities regarding conservation efforts will also be on the agenda. And COP28 will tackle urgent funding for those affected by climate change and conflict, an effort that links these two issues together for the first time at the annual climate summit.
The goals outlined above will be considered within an overall focus on inclusivity in the COP28 Presidency’s Action Agenda. This emphasis nods to the COP28 presidency’s stated objective to “leave no one behind,” while stressing a “pragmatic” approach to the global energy transition.
A “Pragmatic” and “Inclusive” Approach to the Oil Industry?
The objective of pragmatism merits additional examination. How will such a “pragmatic” approach be operationalized within the global climate agenda? Does pragmatism imply that oil-based economies will continue to do business as usual in an allegedly “clean way?” (This is the process of decarbonizing not by phasing down, but rather by “cleaning up,” which was advocated by Canada and Saudi Arabia during COP27.)
One can also wonder just how “clean” oil production can truly become. Twenty years ago, the practice of flaring, or burning of waste gas during oil drilling was banned. But the UAE appears to have continued resorting to this highly polluting practice, with dire consequences for its own population’s health.
Yet even if one can entertain the idea of a pragmatic approach, it does seem also to be heavily weighted towards economic gain. As documents recently leaked to the pressrevealed, the UAE was planning to use its role as the host of the COP to carry out “private business talks” with 15 nations to strike oil deals. The global assessment conducted at COP28 will certainly reflect the fact that fossil fuel emissions are a significant barrier to limiting global warming. Considering this evidence, how truly pragmatic is the approach being put at the center of the COP28 agenda? Or, perhaps, for whom is it pragmatic?
Similar commitments to climate action made in the past have not been met. Take the Green Climate Fund established at COP15 in 2009, with global pledges of $100 billion per year. While this was considered to be a groundbreaking achievement, countries soon reckoned with the legacy of differentiated responsibilities between industrialized and non-industrialized nations. Wealthier nations agreed to pay their less prosperous counterparts $100 billion every year until 2020 to help them make a green energy transition. However, only 80 percent of this annual sum has been honored since the commitment was made.
Looming in the Background: Human Rights, War, and Insecurity
In light of the COP28 president’s statements regarding “humanity” and “solidarity,” it is also vital to remember that the UAE has a long history of jailing its own dissidents. Amnesty International and others have pressured the UAE to allow for the full participation of civil society and the release of political detainees as part of its task of hosting the global conference.
The commitment to obtain urgent funding for victims of climate change and conflict, as well as tackling food insecurity, public health, and support for indigenous communities, also merits some scrutiny. This is especially true since the UAE has played a major role in creating such insecurity in Yemen. The UAE-Saudi Arabia coalition has targeted ports and water infrastructure, created large-scale food insecurity, and has destroyed natural ecosystems in its illegal annexation of Socotra Island for tourism and military purposes.
The war in Gaza is a major regional development that must be navigated at COP28. The UAE has done little to challenge its Abraham Accords ally, Israel, as its all-out war has had disastrous consequences on Gaza’s environmental and public health, destroyed entire systems of essential infrastructure, and exacted a devastatingly high civilian death toll.
It is interesting to note that the UAE’s recent statement calling for a cease fire references a “two-state solution” and “the establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital.” This position was strikingly absent from discussion when the Abraham Accords were signed in 2020. Yet despite calling for Palestinian rights, the UAE has not severed ties with Israel despite its attacks on Gaza, claiming that “it does not mix the economy and trade with politics.” Indeed, the Emirati government is one of the few states (along with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain) to reject calls made at the Organization of Islamic Conference to implement punitive measures against Israel, including the restriction of airspace and the use of oil trade.
Adding to its push towards regional normalization, the UAE also extended an invitation to Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad to attend COP28. The Assad regime has tortured and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising, and 130,000 more civilians are still missing to this day. In his military operations, the Syrian ruler has resorted to chemical arms and targeted civilian and water infrastructure. A campaign is currently being waged by civil society activists, who demand accountability for Assad’s war crimes and the retraction of the invitation by the UAE.
Leading up to COP28, the United Arab Emirates has worked indefatigably to depoliticize both its leadership of the conference and the cause of global climate action in general. Rather, it has sought to bolster its own international image and its own desire for a “pragmatic” approach.
As the conference begins this week, all eyes will be on Dubai. And even if the host choses to ignore them, the elephants in the room will remain at center stage to remind the world that nothing about climate change is apolitical.
The views expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not reflect an official position of the Wilson Center.
About the Author
Middle East Program
The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Read more
Environmental Change and Security Program
The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy. Read more